Sunday, 31 January 2010

Gentle Advice For the Chronic Insomniac

My insomnia started as a result of emotional trauma, some ten years ago. As I was against taking drugs I resisted for a year, but got increasingly burned out and had to give in to them in the end. Herbal sleeping aids may help some but is not strong enough for me. Contrary to what many doctors tell you, some of the drugs that are supposed to help you fall asleep (but not necessarily stay asleep all night which a real sleeping pill would do), can actually work for years (Zopiklon in my case, you may need to look up the generic names, e.g. Lunesta in the USA). Doctors prefer to prescripe other "non-addictive" things such as Seroquel, which in higher doses is meant for epilepsia and psychoses... Well, it makes you drowsy and may work, but I'm not convinced the sleep quality is very good. One of the problems for many insomniacs is the lack of deep (restorative) sleep. This is for instance true in cases of fibromyalgia or chronic stress, where the nervous system is not able to wind down. Amitriptyline which is an old fashioned anti-depressant may help a bit in this case, but the side-effects are not very nice. They include dry mucus (for instance resulting in tooth decay and trouble speaking) low libido, and god knows what else that I have now forgotten. Anyhow, sleeping disorders may be very complicated and it's hard to get proper help. GP's and many psychiatrists like to make you think that you don't really have a problem because they don't understand the workings of the nervous system and the mind-body connection. I thought to compile a little list of things that I find helpful though, hoping that some of it might help others.

  • make sure that your bedroom is clutterfree. This is really, really important. Make it into a really cosy sanctuary with lots of soft cushions, a fluffy down duvet and good quality bed linen that has NO polyester in it. Change your sheets quite often, at least every fortnight. Make sure there are many layers of cotton underneath you if you have a foam mattress. Make sure the bed is soft enough to induce a feeling of security. The bedroom should never be used for anything but sleeping. I can't stress this enough! It really makes a difference. Sometimes sleeping on the ground floor can be a problem because you subconsciously may feel that someone could come in through the window. Try and see if this is the case. If you only have one floor, make sure the window is well blocked at least with heavy curtains if not in other more drastic ways.

  • make sure your bedroom is dark enough, and that it's neither too warm or too cold.

  • you might need to wear ear plugs. I have worn them for years...

  • According to Feng Shui, your head should face the East. You can always try... I turned my bed around but made other changes too so it's hard to tell whether this could have made a difference. Feng Shui also tells you not to have mirrors facing your bed, and to me that's really just common sense.

  • research has shown that having some carbohydrates before going to sleep is helpful. So the old adage about milk and cookies is correct. I find it calming to have some soyamilk or night time herbal tea along with a sandwhich or cake. Some say a small piece of dark chocolate is helpful.

  • alcohol can be bad for the quality of the sleep but sometimes a glass or two of wine can be helpful in calming the nerves. Don't make it into a habit, though.

  • lavender oil (make sure it's essential!) can be burnt in an oil burner or sprinkled onto something close to your nose. I find that it really does have a soothing effect. You might like to experiment with different brands, possibly from different countries of origin.

  • some incense may help. I find that some cheap incense from Thailand has a woody note that soothes me. You have to experiment to find out what works for you. There is also lavender scented incense but again you have to see which brand works for you. For me, the scent of rose is also conducive to positive feelings. If you can, keep some beautiful fresh flowers by the bed.

  • sit up in bed and meditate before sleep, if you can. If you have a helpful partner, he could stroke your back while you gently fall asleep.

  • get enough exercise in the daytime, for instance a half-hour walk or more. Then do some gentle exercise such as yoga or light weight lifting in the evening.

  • Qigong is very helpful in tuning in with your body and calming the mind. There's something you can do when you're already in bed - it's an exercise called LaQi, but it's by no means exclusive to Qigong. You hold your hands in front of your navel as if holding a bowl or a ball (the hands should not touch each other). Slowly separate them by moving the hands further apart, about half a meter. Then move them back again, slowly. Keep doing this for a while and find that your energies settle a bit (you're "collecting" and "building up" energy between your hands).

  • lying on a bed of nails (look it up online) for half an hour before bed is helping me feel more relaxed.

  • try and remember that your body does know how to fall asleep and don't buy into the mindclutter that tells you that you just can't. Breathe deeply, connect your mind with the whole body, and have faith that nature knows what to do. Don't get frustrated if this doesn't immediately solve your problem; rest assured that at least it's helpful...

  • going to bed at the same time every day is an important thing to strive towards even if the mind may make all sorts of excuses to avoid it. One problem could be the feeling of not wanting to get up the following day, and so you postpone going to bed... try and counteract this by sticking to the schedule and finding reasons that make getting up in the morning into a more pleasant experience. It could simply be having more time to wake up and having something nice to drink or eat that you can look forward to. If watching TV first thing in the morning works for you, then go for it! Whatever helps...

  • it really is best not to watch TV before bed, especially not an engaging movie. For some, reading a boring book helps but in my case it makes me have to focus and so it has the opposite effect. Looking through a magazine and dreaming about a beautiful home seems like a better option.

  • whatever is on your mind needs to be dealt with, so write it down or settle an argument before sleeping. Seriously consider cutting the cord with people who distress you on a permanent basis. Do whatever it takes!

  • footmassage to yourself with some pleasant oil is a good idea.

  • sometimes, soft music can help you drift off to sleep. The choice is obviously yours, it could be New Age music, nature's sounds (birds, rain, waves) or something alternative. There was a time when Steven Reich's drumming was helpful to me. Now I prefer complete silence.

  • last but not least; a sense of security is really important. You need to address the emotional issues that may make you feel insecure. Try and feel that nothing out there is out to get you, or that you are surrounded by benevolent forces that keep these negative energies at bay while you sleep. Having another person in your life that helps you feel safer could be a solution to some of these problems. Feeling vulnerable is not a crime...
As a side note, I'd like to add a few viewpoints on the way doctors often look at insomnia, especially in relation to a chronic illness of sorts. It's rare to meet someone who truly understands what it's like. You usually get referred to a psychiatrist, but they may not know much about insomnia per se (for instance, which medicines are really useful and not just "horrid addictive ones") and even less about the physical issues involved. If you're one of the unfortunate who suffer from ME, CFS and/or fibromyalgia, for instance, then the condition will affect your sleep in every conceivable way. It's all very well to talk about regular sleeping schedules, but when you're overly fatigued one day and extremely hyper the next, following a regular schedule can be next to impossible. It's also very disruptive if you are in a phase when you wake up a lot and thus loose hours of sleep. You may not be able to cope with the loss of even one hour of sleep. Getting up to do something else is just plain stupid advice. You might also find that you have to leave a party much earlier than anyone else because you can't cope with a disturbed schedule the next day).

I find it very stressful to try and juggle with medicines so that I can rest assured  that I will fall asleep when I'm supposed to. It's already hard enough to motivate myself to stick to schedule! Doctors rarely understand any of this. A shrink I had said that for one thing he doesn't believe fibromyalgia exists, for another I just need to stay up for two days and then I'm sure to sleep! Yeah right. I'd sleep for 24 hours, wake up bright as a morning bird - at four in the morning! Try and stick to schedule - it does help. But you might have to be prepared for some anxiety in relation to all the arrangments that need to be made to ensure that this really works.

Artwork: Digital photograph by author, all rights reserved 2010


  1. I've always heard that you should leave your bed as a space to sleep in, and to avoid doing other things like work or reading or watching tv while in bed. That you it becomes your space that is reserved solely for sleep, and you won't be distracted when you go to bed.

  2. Absolutely! I brought this up because I tried it myself... I have given up the work space (for doing collages etc) and make more space for my partner in that room. I ended up clearing up the space a whole lot, which maybe without specific motivation (doing it for someone else as well) I wouldn't have done. I found that it makes me feel much happier to go to bed and more relaxed. I would now consider this one of the most important things to take care of.

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  4. The problem with insomniacs is that they lie in bed, thinking about everything except sleeping. They think about their day, the past, negative experiences or imagine frightful images that scare the pants off of them...If that's what you do, it's a great way to keep yourself awake.

    A couple of tricks..
    Your tonality is very important. If you're talking inside your head really really fast and sound really stressed...well, it speaks for itself. By changing the tonality of your internal dialogue so that it sounds really slow, boring and sleepy does magic for the brain.

    Second, one trick that never fails me. If you are a very visual person, and have a tendency of pressing the mental replay button while you lie in bed, try replaying the events of the day very quickly, backwards... This trick has worked miracles for a lot of people.

    Hope I've been helpful. Sleep tight

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  6. Thank you Woman Awakened for the valid suggestions! I totally agree that the inner voice is crucial. I am not sure the second trick would be useful to me but maybe it is to someone else!

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  8. Some fantastic advice there - definitely need to remove all possible distractions - i find a little mediation before bed time does the power of good

  9. Thank you so much magicdarts! I'm glad if it's of any help... it's not easy to come up with stuff that isn't "the same old". Yes, a meditation before bed is great. I also find that doing a qigong exercise is restful - will add this to my list. I will also add some viewpoints on sticking to a schedule and what doctors usually tell you... :-)